A state work group wants to prevent vehicles that are lived in from being towed and increase the chances that homeless people in Washington can recover vehicles and belongings that are towed.
The recommendations, which the state’s Senate Housing Committee heard last week, come more than a year after a state Supreme Court ruling that carved out certain property rights for people living out of vehicles that have been impounded.
While many thought that the ruling would slash the number of vehicles towed that are used by people who live in them, that has not been the case in Seattle, where the Seattle Department of Transportation has issued 6,100 citations and impounded around 3,300 vehicles between October 2021 and December 2022.
Instead, confusion has reigned over what is permissible for cities and tow operators, and what is accessible for people who lose their shelter.
Meanwhile, the proportion of people living out of their vehicles in King County has increased in recent years. While the scale of vehicle homelessness in Washington is unknown, people living out of vehicles in King County increased from 32% of the unsheltered homeless population in 2010 to 49% in 2020.
Vehicle homelessness has become so common in Seattle that some business owners and residents have illegally placed concrete blocks in public streets anonymously, to prevent large recreational vehicles from parking near their buildings.
Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, the chair of the Senate Housing Committee, said vehicle homelessness is a growing issue and her office is drafting a bill to adopt some of the recommendations. While the ultimate goal should be for everyone to be in permanent housing, protections need to be in place for those living out of vehicles in the meantime, she said.
“We don’t want to impound somebody’s vehicle when that is their means of getting to work, when that is their shelter, when that contains their personal belongings,” she said.
Kuderer said she is not sure whether the bill would receive a hearing this session or next year.
On the other side of the aisle, two senators in the Housing Committee and another senator have introduced a bill designed to modify the state’s laws to specifically exclude vehicles illegally parked on public property from qualifying as homesteads.
The proposed bill states that the Long decision has “incentivized” people to live in vehicles and “unsafe and unsanitary living situations” and exacerbated the homelessness crisis.
When is a vehicle a residence?
Steven Long, a construction worker who was homeless, sued the city of Seattle in 2017 after the truck he was sleeping out of was towed. Long was fined for the towing and the parking violation, and he faced the threat of his truck being auctioned off by the towing company if he could not pay.
The Supreme Court determined that auctioning off his truck would have violated Washington’s frontier-era Homestead Act, which protects families from losing their home because of financial adversity. The decision also said the fees Long faced were excessive and the city should have assessed whether Long was able to pay before leveling them.
The ticketing and towing process can be arduous for vehicle residents who often have paid for the vehicle informally and lack proper documentation to prove ownership. They are seldom told that they can request a hearing after an impound, and even fewer are the registered owners and go through the trouble.
The state work group consisted of advocates, lawyers, and representatives from nonprofits, tow truck operations, municipal courts, fire chiefs and local cities and counties. They “widely agreed” that impounding a vehicle should be a last resort because doing so “greatly disrupts the lives of people who occupy them,” according to the group’s report authored by Washington State University’s government studies and services department.
The group recommended formalizing which vehicles meet the criteria of the Homestead Act, saying they must have at least three of the following:
- The view through the front and back windows is blocked
- The view through at least one side window is blocked
- There is unfrozen condensation on the inside of the windows
- At least one window is partially open
- Items that “indicate residence” like generators or bicycles are attached to the outside of the vehicle
- A large volume of items in plastic bags is inside or next to the vehicle.
Graham Pruss, an anthropologist who studies vehicle residents and participated in the work group, said he developed those criteria from his research with homeless people living out of vehicles and King County uses the criteria to identify lived-in vehicles during its annual homeless census.
Some members of the work group proposed issuing voluntary identification stickers to identify vehicles being used as residences, according to the report.
How impound hearings could change
Emily Wade, the administrative director for the Towing and Recovery Association of Washington and a work group participant, said there are many vehicles that are not homes that meet those criteria.
The Long decision created a “big gray area” for what happens after someone declares the vehicle a residence, she said. Courts, police officers and tow operators have been given little direction on how to proceed.
Seattle Department of Transportation spokesperson Ethan Bergerson said the department received more than 50,000 customer service reports of abandoned vehicles since parking enforcement resumed in October 2021, a pent-up demand from more than a year of no enforcement during the beginning of the pandemic.
In addition to the recommendations about how to identify whether a vehicle should be towed, the report also recommends changes to the process after a vehicle that is used as shelter is towed to make it easier for someone with few resources to navigate, including:
- Extend the amount of time to request an impound hearing
- Allow courts to authorize someone, who may not be the registered owner of the vehicle, to redeem the vehicle or items from the vehicle
- Allow courts to postpone impound hearings when someone does not have proof of ownership
- Extend the amount of time before a vehicle in the tow lot is declared abandoned and auctioned off
The report also recommends allowing courts to reduce fines for people who cannot pay for their vehicle. Many small towns do not have the funds to absorb that cost and the prices tow truck operators charge are regulated by the state, so some have suggested a state fund to help cover the difference between the cost of towing and the reduced fee.
“With as many different avenues of people that came together, I think it’s great that they’re looking to combine these different areas of expertise for a solution,” Wade said. “I think it’s going to be a long path to get there.”
Bill Kirlin-Hackett, who helps run Seattle’s Vehicle Residency Outreach Program/Scofflaw Mitigation, said the report’s recommendations are a welcome start toward sorting out the legal confusion around towing and impound hearings.
“This is another step toward recognizing our neighbors across Washington who live in vehicles, and respecting their right to residency, their private property and better including them in our communities,” Pruss said.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the last name of Emily Wade, the administrative director for the Towing and Recovery Association of Washington.